May 19, 2022


The Men’s Rights Movement was born to weigh in on cases like Johnny Depp’s. The movement gained prominence during the Seventies and Eighties in response to what some men saw as preferential treatment of women in family court cases, especially where custody arrangements, alimony, and divorce settlements were concerned. As the historic injustices faced by women gained more attention in the media, legal system, and politics, these men organised to cry, What About Us?

It’s true that men are more likely to let abuse and stalking continue longer than women before they seek intervention by the police, and anecdotally the reasons they give are fear of being seen as unmanly or fear of not being taken seriously. (Although, of course, of course, victims of interpersonal violence of any gender have long been frustrated by their attempts to seek justice or assistance.) And it’s also true that men are less likely to be acknowledged as the victims of violence in interpersonal relationships, heterosexual or otherwise.

But the new Men’s Rights Activist, the online version, goes beyond pointing out these troubling structural realities, which stem from all sorts of societal stereotypes about men’s strength, physical and emotional. Instead, he points the finger of blame — publicly doubting accusations against prominent men while escalating every perceived harm done by a woman.

And so, of course, Johnny Depp has become a hero in the eyes of the MRAs. One of the biggest priorities for the movement is to prove that women make false accusations of rape and abuse against men, and that making such an accusation is a way of getting attention, fame, and protection. Depp’s decision to sue ex-wife Amber Heard and the newspaper The Sun for their claims that he abused her has given a platform to their crusade. Many see him as serving this larger cause, proving not only that men can be victims of domestic violence, but also that women make false accusations.

Amber Heard, in their eyes, is a “witch”. Turning the language of online feminism on its head, the MRAs accuse her of “toxic femininity”. Just as the phrase “toxic masculinity” was created to explain how traditionally gendered behaviour by men — aggressiveness, callousness, sexual transgressions — were actually harmful rather than something that should be nurtured and rewarded, “toxic femininity” suggests that traditionally female sins — playing the victim, lying, crying to manipulate — have been tolerated for too long. Amber Heard, sobbing on the witness stand, represents the red-pilled man’s most cynical fantasies of womanhood.

The first generation of the Men’s Rights Movement grew out of men feeling demonised by feminists, and the same is perhaps true here. In recent years, the discourse around toxic masculinity has been intense — and often pretty meaningless. Depp’s case has become a rallying cry for all the presumed men “suffering” this discourse — the men whose strength, assertiveness, and sexual prowess was now deemed problematic, the Depp trial has been a platform for aggrieved men to hold forth on “toxic femininity”.

The social media edition of the gender wars depends on gross generalisations. On Twitter, hashtags like #MenAreTrash go viral for any variation of betrayal and violation — from rape to not texting back to taking up too much space in public. MRAs have responded by co-opting and reversing the accusations — not only has toxic masculinity become toxic femininity, #MeToo has become #MenToo.

And sometimes this raw display of heteropessimism intersects with celebrity breakups, especially when “toxic femininity” is on display. This is the result of a parasocial “stan” culture, in which the traditional one-sided relationship people have always had with the powerful or the famous gets twisted into a fantastical attachment, where a celebrity becomes both an imaginary friend and a stand-in for their fan’s own identity. The idea is that, if good things happen to this person, those good things are or could possibly happen to me; if this person is vindicated I, too, will be vindicated; and if bad things happen, like a romantic break-up or some other problem, this is proof that my life will suffer similar indignities. Certain figures — Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Elizabeth Warren — have become notorious for their online fanbases, who will harass their exes and their critics on their behalf.

Johnny Depp, meanwhile, has become a stand-in for every man who gaslighted, rejected, or abused; Amber Heard a representation of every woman who has feigned hurt, made false accusations of abuse, or lied and cheated, whether real or imagined. This isn’t Depp against Heard; it is man against woman.

And it’s worth noting that the case taking up so much media and online attention is not about what Johnny and Amber have actually done to each other, it’s about the stories they’ve told. It is not a criminal trial meant to adjudicate the abuse accusations made by both Depp and Heard against each other over the years. It’s a defamation trial centred around a personal essay Heard published in the Washington Post about abuse she suffered at the hands of an unnamed romantic partner.

That essay landed at the height of the MeToo movement, as accusations against figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Brett Kavanaugh and Louis C.K. saw powerful men being sent to trial, investigated in the press, or fired from work. The rhetoric at the time was that it was important to “Believe Women” when they accused men of abuse. Heard got a lot of media attention — which was exactly what she wanted: she’d been asked to write the essay by ACLU to promote the cause of domestic violence, and she in return asked that the essay be published in time to promote her film, Aquaman. What benefited her career harmed his: despite not naming Depp directly in the initial essay, it was widely assumed to be about him, and Depp was, like many men accused of abuse against women, suddenly dropped from projects, most notably the next in the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the Fantastic Beasts series.

This is, I suppose, what some men would call “toxic femininity”. It is an inconvenient reality that famous women can sometimes monetise their personal stories of abuse and survival. Many feminist activists have tried to deny or downplay the professional advantages of victimhood, for fear that misogynists and abusers will use it to downplay accusations. But those denials can often have the opposite effect, creating a backlash effect.

Even as some of Heard’s accusations began to fall apart, many online feminists supported her side of the story and used her essay as a jumping-off point to either talk about the abuse they themselves had suffered or to draw attention to the serious harm done to women in romantic relationships every year. If Heard was seen to be lying or exaggerating, it would be “bad for women,” as if one false accusation by a celebrity calls all accusations women make against their male partners into questions.

Everyone, in short, is making this case about themselves, and ignoring the obvious fact that these two individuals have obviously both done terrible things to each other. We are, of course, more used to seeing these individuals on our screens as characters, rather than real humans. People are watching the Depp/Heard trial like a film; they’re there to be entertained. And in television shows — including documentaries — victims are predominantly shown as being passive and naïve like in so many Lifetime movies, or sexually stimulated by the violence as in Big Little Lies, or as meek women who are pushed into warrior mode with a need for vengeance like in The Burning Bed and the very many rape revenge horror films. There are many ways to control, dominate, intimidate, and violate in romantic relationships, and it’s often more complicated and messy than your average television show is willing to depict.

On social media, too, one person has to be a clear victim and the other a clear aggressor. But the legal system is ill-equipped to deal with this. It aims to prove one person guilty and the other innocent. Perhaps that binary is inevitable in any public forum. But activists serious about addressing the problem of domestic violence should resist it, not fuel it.

When an anonymous account only takes an extreme position — “all women are deceitful liars” or “most rape accusations are made by women who consented but then experienced regret”, it’s tempting to swing to the other extreme: “actually, women are perfect angels who would never lie”. But while propaganda might be useful in radicalising the people who already support you, it will do nothing to convert your enemies. Trying to turn Amber Heard into a role model will only come back to bite feminists.